Elon Musk Lays Out Ambitious, Challenging Plan to Colonize Mars

by Bill Ostrove, Space Systems Analyst, Forecast International.

Mars image taken by Hubble. Source: NASA

Mars image taken by Hubble. Source: NASA

Elon Musk has proposed an ambitious plan to make humans a multiplanet species. The announcement of the initiative was made at the International Astronautical Congress on September 27 in Guadalajara, Mexico, to much fanfare. Attendees of the event described the atmosphere as closer to a rock concert than a scientific or business presentation.

Under the plan, Musk intends for his company, SpaceX, to develop a new booster rocket and carrier spacecraft that will carry the humans and equipment necessary to establish a 1-million-strong colony on the Red Planet. Much of the technology and techniques that SpaceX has developed over the years by operating the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft have led up to this point. However, Musk’s presentation left out a few important details that will require further thought in order for the mission to be successful.

The basic plan laid out by Musk includes four elements that will be key to the mission’s success. First, any rocket and spaceship used for the mission will need to be fully reusable, unlike today’s expendable launch vehicles. Second, the vehicles need to be capable of refueling in orbit, because launching multiple smaller rockets is cheaper and technically easier than developing a rocket massive enough to carry all of the equipment and fuel needed for a trip to Mars. Third, the mission will need to be able to produce fuel on Mars to power a return flight to Earth. That means that, as the fourth element, the spaceships will need to be powered by methane, which is readily available on Mars, rather than kerosene like current Falcon 9 rockets.

SpaceX will conduct launches every 26 months, taking advantage of a window when Earth and Mars are close together. During each window, SpaceX would conduct between 200 and 500 missions, each carrying 100 to 200 passengers along with cargo and equipment. Each trip will take about 90 to 120 days.

Musk laid out an ambitious timeframe. SpaceX will gradually ramp up its mission capability. In 2018, the company will launch a Red Dragon to Mars, carrying various scientific experiments. The company plans to launch a Red Dragon mission every 26 months while it develops the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). The company says that it will complete development of the passenger and cargo spaceship within four years, and missions will start within 10 years. SpaceX has a history of laying out ambitious schedules and then not being able to meet them, so even if the company is able to successfully meet its goals, the 10-year timeframe will likely not be met.

The ambitious plan laid out by Musk on Tuesday will require a range of new technologies and techniques to be developed, and the company has already started doing just that. From its founding, SpaceX has said its long-term vision is to make humanity a multiplanet species. The company has already spent tens of millions of dollars on developing a Mars mission, including work on the Raptor rocket motor that will power the ITS.

Some of SpaceX’s other activities have helped it to move toward its goal. For example, the company has continually redesigned the heat shields on its Dragon capsule, used to resupply the International Space Station. The advanced heat shield technology will be used to protect future spaceships traveling back and forth from Mars. Moreover, landing techniques that SpaceX is developing for the Falcon 9 will be used to land the ITS booster so that it can be reused, a primary element of the Mars plan.


Interplanetary Transport System. Source: SpaceX/Youtube

But despite the advances that SpaceX has made, the road to making Mars accessible to millions of potential colonists is long. Elon Musk himself recognized that the plan will be hugely expensive, and there is a high likelihood it will not succeed at all. There are multiple financial and technical challenges that will need to be overcome.

Musk estimates the project will cost about $10 billion. He promised to put as much personal wealth as possible into the project, but that will not be enough. While Musk would like to establish a public-private partnership, he did not spend as much time as expected convincing people to join him. His speech focused on laying out the vision, not making an overt push to sell the idea. SpaceX itself does not generate enough revenue to fund such a project. So it will likely need to partner with both other companies and government agencies, like NASA.

Furthermore, there are major technical challenges associated with the mission. Developing the technology behind the rocket itself will be difficult. It will be all carbon fiber, something that has not yet been successfully achieved. It will also need to land and take off dozens of times during the short windows of every 26 months when Earth and Mars are close in their orbits. SpaceX has made great strides in rocket technology, but it still has a long way to go.

What will likely be even more of a challenge is supporting passengers once they arrive on Mars. While Mars does have certain critical elements, such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen, the planet is inhospitable to plants and animals. Lack of magnetic poles means it is not protected from solar radiation and an atmosphere is not supported. Finally, all of people’s needs would need to be met, meaning, for example, that a sustainable source of food and water will need to be found. Musk did not focus on addressing these challenges in his presentation, but they will need to be tackled. SpaceX is clearly focusing on the transportation aspect of the mission. The company will need to partner with other organizations that are able to develop solutions to these problems.

Elon Musk has laid out an ambitious vision to make humans a multiplanetary species. His vision will likely inspire numerous people in the same way that NASA’s Moon missions in the 1960s and 1970s did. Furthermore, SpaceX has already achieved a number of successes, such as reducing launch costs significantly and landing rockets after orbital missions. This past success bodes well for any ambitious plans in the future. However, multiple challenges lie ahead. The cost will be immense, and will require partnerships with other organizations with deep pockets. The technical challenges are also immense. While SpaceX may be able to overcome the challenges associated with developing the ITS, conducting multiple launches and landings in a short period of time will be difficult. It will also be a challenge to support passengers once they arrive on Mars. As with funding, SpaceX will need partners to address these issues.

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